‘Minding the Campus’ Highlights Delaware Professor Jan Blits’ Keynote Address from CFN Conference

August 4, 2011

Just a few short weeks ago, FIRE wrapped up a successful Campus Freedom Network (CFN) conference, our fourth. Headlining three days of speakers, student panels, and breakout sessions was University of Delaware (UD) Professor Jan Blits, our keynote speaker for the final day of the conference. Professor Blits, in addition to being a member of the University Honors Faculty at UD, was a recipient this year of the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Academic Freedom Award, and in 2009 received FIRE’s Prometheus Award for his efforts in ending UD’s illiberal thought reform program in its residence halls.

Today, Minding the Campus has reprinted Professor Blits’ keynote address in its entirety. In his speech, which discussed the particulars of UD’s now-dismantled program at length, Professor Blits explained why efforts to coerce students into advocating for certain outcomes aren’t protected by academic freedom:

Now, some people defended the program by arguing that administrators have the same academic freedom as faculty. ResLife administrators should therefore be as free as faculty to educate students. This argument may sound plausible, especially to those who support academic freedom (as I do), but it overlooks something crucial. No faculty member (at least at my institution) may do what Residence Life attempted. Academic freedom does not mean that anything goes, that I may do whatever I like with my students. Academic freedom permits me to teach, but not to indoctrinate. This fall, one of my classes will be reading Oedipus Rex. Academic freedom allows me to gauge how well the students understand Zeus, but not whether they now believe more (or less) in Zeus-let alone, whether they will act now on their new belief. Similarly, I may discuss politics in class, if it is relevant, but I may not grade students according to whether or not they agree with me. Academic freedom permits requiring students to understand given material, but not to adopt certain opinions or to take certain actions on which reasonable people may disagree. The latter is not a proper "learning outcome." I may require students to know, say, the arguments for (or against) separation of powers, but not to adopt the view that Barack Obama is (or is not) an imperial president. Academic freedom is freedom to learn and to teach. It is not license to indoctrinate or to insist on desired opinions, beliefs and actions. It does not permit me to "turn" students, to stamp "a mental footprint on their consciousness." (That’s really a totalitarian metaphor. Whenever I hear it, I can’t help but think of the Fascists in Europe in the 1930’s and 40’s.)

There is much more to read from Professor Blits’ speech, so be sure to check out the whole piece over at Minding the Campus.